Maya Angelou, Yrsa Daley-Ward and Warsan Shire are fan favourites, but who else made our list of 10 favourite poets for you to discover or rediscover?
The world was captivated by award-winning poet, writer and activist Amanda Gorman and her powerful reading of her poem ‘The Hill we Climb’ at the US presidential inauguration earlier this year. Her poem shared a message of unity, peace and justice in a time of uncertainty and upheaval.
Amanda’s performance on the world stage invoked a collective re-appreciation of poetry among many people and here at Melan Magazine we were inspired to revisit some of our favourite Black poets who have left their mark on the world with their remarkable words.
Our line-up includes well-known favourites and some poetry stars whose works you are maybe yet to discover. Collectively, these versatile Black poets’ have contributed to a rich legacy and history, addressing social issues, sharing personal testimonies, or entertaining for our pleasure.
Check out our list of 10 influential Black poets who have inspired us and then add them to your reading list!
Amanda Gorman is an honours graduate from Harvard who focuses on oppression, feminism and race. She holds honours of being the first in many things, including the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate. Since her reading at the inauguration, she has been in high demand, an influential figure we regularly hear, see and read about in even mainstream press.
Reminding the world of spirit and togetherness at a time of racial and political tension and captivating every listener, it came as no surprise that her poetry book ‘The Hill we Climb’ put her on top as a best-selling author on USA’S Best-Selling Books list, the first poetry book to ever be No.1 on their list. The 23-year-old is the first poet to write and perform an original poem for the Super Bowl and is also the first poet to ever grace the cover of Vogue!
Gorman shared on her Twitter page that ‘The Hill We Climb’ made history. She tweeted, “History made: The Hill We Climb now has the biggest week 1 sale of any poetry title ever published.” Earlier this year, she also shared the cover of her first children’s book ‘Change Sings’ via her Instagram, written with the purpose to “remind young readers that they have the power to shape the world.” There is not a more fitting individual to convey this message.
She needs no introduction. Maya Angelou has inspired poets across the globe, including Amanda Gorman herself. She is inspirational for her history of activism, work and achievements; she received the presidential medal of honour from former President Barack Obama. As a civil rights activist, Angelou walked alongside for Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. Angelou’s poetry touches on the depictions of Black beauty, the strength of women and the human spirit.
Maya Angelou was also an inauguration poet, making history as the first Black inauguration poet. She read ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, which spoke on peace, racial and religious justice as well as social justice for everyone. This led her to win the Grammy Award for ‘Best Spoken Word.’
Angelou was the author of more than 30 books. Her debut autobiography ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ in which she wrote about the sexual trauma she experienced as a child. In an interview with Oprah, Angelou said the book was banned in some places because of the graphic content, but she also believed the book had saved lives by “providing a model of endurance”.
In an interview with The Guardian, Angelou said she thought she had caused her sexual abuser’s death because she spoke his name to her family. She remained mute for five years, “I decided my voice was so powerful that it could kill people.”
Considering her complicated yet remarkable life it is of no surprise that Angelou wrote seven autobiographies, the last published a year before her death in 2014. May she continue to inspire others and the next generation of young writers.
Yrsa Daley-Ward is a writer, model and actor. She is best known for her thought-provoking poetry tackling topics on race, gender, mental health, femininity and sexuality. Her debut poetry book ‘Bone’ was initially released in 2014 through Amazon’s self-publishing arm and has since been expanded for reissue by Penguin and has been followed by ‘The Terrible’, which made our 2018 Books for your reading list. In an interview with The Guardian Daley-Ward was quoted saying, “if you’re afraid to write it, that’s a good sign. I suppose you know you’re writing the truth when you’re terrified.”
Daley-Ward frequently posts some of her work online and has been branded an “Instagram poet,” her most recent Instagram poem ‘I want to love you off the edge of a cliff’ explores themes of how to love and be loved. She also co-wrote Beyoncé’s musical film and visual album ‘Black Is King.’
Warsan Shire is a poet and activist who grew up in London after migrating from Kenya at a young age. In 2014 she was named the first Young Poetry Laureate for London. In 2013 she was awarded the inaugural Brunel University Poetry Prize. Her writing amplifies the voices of underrepresented communities such as refugees, immigrants and other marginalized groups, homing in her own experiences as a first-generation immigrant. This can be seen in her poem ‘Conversations about Home (at a deportation centre)’ where she recites, “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
Warsan Shire’s poetry inspired Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, with Warsan Shire’s name as the first to be featured in the credits. Beyoncé’s verse “I don’t know when love became elusive. What I know is, no one I know has it,” is derived from Shire’s poem ‘the unbearable weight of staying (the end of the relationship)’.
Aja Monet is an American poet, spoken word artist and activist from Brooklyn, New York. She is known for being the youngest poet in history to win the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam Champion at the age of 19 and has been the only woman to win ever since. She was an active participant of the ‘Say Her Name’ campaign which highlighted police brutality against Black women.
Aja Monet has an online presence where she uses her talent of poetry and her passion for activism to post prayers, affirmations and poetry.
George the Poet
George Mpanga most commonly known by his stage name George the Poet is a Peabody award-winning British spoken-word artist, rapper and podcast host of Ugandan heritage, with a particular interest in social and political issues.
His prominence as a poet led him to be signed for Island Record where he produced his critically acclaimed EP ‘The Chicken and The Egg’. His podcast entitled, ‘Have You heard George’s Podcast’ won five awards at the 2019 British Podcast Awards, including ‘Podcast of the Year.’
George the Poet has a successful career and has produced work for Sky Sports, BBC Radio 1 and Which?, he even opened Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s Royal Wedding with love poem, ‘The Beauty of Union.’
From a young man who began rapping at 15, to spoken word at the University of Cambridge where he studied, to signing with a record label after graduation, George the Poet continues to have influence within the poetry and spoken word scene.
Linton Kwesi-Johnson, also known as LKJ, is a classic Jamaican poet who migrated to Brixton, London in 1963. In 2002, LKJ made history as the second living poet and the only Black poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series. His style of performance poetry is unique and cultural, involving the recital of patois over dub-reggae.
While at school, LKJ joined the Black Panthers Movement and helped organise a poetry workshop within the movement. Much of LKJ’s work is political, focusing on being a Caribbean man in Britain. In an interview with The Guardian he famously said, “writing was a political act and poetry was a cultural weapon.” His most famous work was in response to the 1981 Brixton riots named ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’.
LKJ once said, “My biggest achievement so far is that I have given a generation of Black people the confidence to articulate themselves. That is what young people have told me.”
Kayo Chingonyi is an award-winning poet and fellow of the Complete Works Programme for diversity and equality in British Poetry. He was born in Zambia and migrated to the UK in 1993. This duality is something he draws on in his works. He has previously written: “This notion of the poem as a space in which I can exist in my fullness is probably why I have chosen poetry as my medium. What is a poem but a record of something the poet cannot get past?”
Chingonyi’s debut full collection, ‘Kumukanda’ went on to win the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2017. He has published two pamphlets entitled ‘Some Bright Elegance’ and ‘The Colour of James Brown’s Scream’. Additionally, he has published poems, essays, and reviews.
Grace Nichols is a Guyanese poet who migrated to Britain in 1977, her work is influenced by her homeland and she focuses attention on life as a Caribbean immigrant. She was one of many poets including Linton Kwesi-Johnson who spoke up through poetry against Margaret Thatcher’s government at a time of racial and political tension.
She infuses humour into her poetry, evident in her collection of poems named ‘The Fat Black Women’s Poems’ and touches on themes of culture, landscape and the history of enslavement through oral storytelling. In particular, her poem ‘To My Coral Bones’ explores the importance of her Caribbean heritage. Her poem ‘Praise Song for My Mother’ is on the GCSE syllabus and brings her words to life through vibrant imagery.
Her debut collection of poetry ‘I is a Long-Memoried Woman’ won the 1983 Commonwealth Poetry Prize.
Malika Booker is a writer, poet and multi-disciplinary artist whose work is steeped in anthropological research methodology and rooted in storytelling. She has worked with the BBC, National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company where she was also their inaugural Poet-in-Residence. Currently, she is the Douglas Caster Cultural Fellow at the University of Leeds.
Malika co-founded Malika’s Poetry Kitchen in 2001 to create a community of writers dedicated to the development of their writing craft. Now a firmly established writers collective based in London, it offers bi-weekly writers’ surgeries and has supported writers including Warsan Shire.
Are your favourite poets on this list? Let us know your poets picks in the comment section below.